Decoding the Mixed Messages of Technology Journalism (March)

In March 2020, the Rights Writers were asked what role has the media played in covering the topic and what effects, positive and negative, has the media had on their topic, and what role ought the media to play.

A picture of the stage at Fortune Brainstorm Tech 2016
Kevin Moloney/Fortune Brainstorm Tech, “Fortune Brainstorm Tech 2016″. Source: Flickr

“Global Deception.”

“What about Privacy? Security?”

“Beware of Hackers.”

These phrases are included within the first two pages of headlines after a quick search of “The Technology Industry” on Google News. And while the haiku above is certainly not representative of the many nuances of public opinion and global journalism on the topic of Big Tech, it does suggest two things: (1) there is a generally negative portrayal of the privilege and power of the global technology industry and (2) the content and sourcing of these articles reveal this type of journalism is largely America-centric.

It is no secret, however, that the technology industry with its enormous and unwieldy market power and social influence has faced immense scrutiny in the media for some time now. In just the past 5 years, mass news outlets including the New York Times and NPR published entire series of stories criticizing technology giants for privacy scandals and ignoring consumer well-being. Even articles announcing the release of new products end in familiar phrases like, “If this is possible, then what next?” intentionally communicate a sense of unease about technology’s rate of change. Hence, the vast scope of news reporting under the umbrella of “Technology journalism,” as it is now coined, may be characterized by a common theme that weaves all of these stories together in the mind of an informed citizen: That individuals, corporations, and governments should be wary of the risks associated with Big Technology.

Recently, political bodies, human rights groups, and other agencies have become more involved in communicating the risks of big technology to the public. From stripping individuals of their right to remain anonymous, to discussions of biased algorithms that may impact the future of policing, criminal justice systems, and national security all over the world, they argue that citizens should be informed of the diverse set of threats beyond the mass media’s c shallow coverage of data privacy and other “hot topics” of the industry. So, when a journalist decides to cover one of these more in-depth subjects, they provide well-researched organizations a platform to explain the specific threats of Big Tech to individual human rights. This kind of reporting backed by data-driven analysis is beneficial in many ways, as it connects the dots between the technology industry and human impact while also helping to overcome the problematic phenomenon of asymmetric knowledge between the consumer and the creator of the technology.

But technology journalism still has a long way to go.

As I previously mentioned, this type of journalism is largely centered on the industry and its impact in the United States. And while this may seem justified when considering the geographic placement of Silicon Valley and that 9 of the top 10 largest technology companies are American-owned, it is important to recognize that news reports on the negative impacts of this technology, such as the case of Facebook in Myanmar and other technology companies abusing human rights in developing countries, remain few and far between.

We find a case in which the media largely underrepresents and underreports on the social impact of emerging technologies in developing and vulnerable communities outside of the United States. It is this reporting gap that demonstrates both the mainstream media’s general failure to report on third-world nations and the technology industry’s disproportionate control over the stories and narratives that are released to the public, which both have immense implications for human rights. A study conducted by a number of relief aid organizations revealed the importance of international news coverage in raising attention to humanitarian crises and securing government and corporate aid. Hence, we may see how the media’s lack of coverage may contribute to the phenomenon of “forgotten humanitarian crises” in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities and how, generally, technology journalism can be used to stifle the advancement of, or even damage, human rights globally.

Anthony Quintano, “F8 2019 Stock Photos”. Source: Flickr

The media also suffers from an oversaturation of stories covering the technology. As a result, many readers are left feeling averse to investing their time in an article with yet another headline warning that citizens’ privacy is being stolen from them. Furthermore, with so many media outlets echoing similar information, readers may begin to feel disillusioned; unsure of what information is accurate and what risks of technology are really worth their concern. Certainly, I was initially unsure where to click after my Google News search that yielded over a million results in just 0.28 seconds.

The problem of disillusionment and overwhelm is exacerbated by the fact that many of the technology companies being criticized in the media have their own news reporting sites, platforms, and forums where they often rebuke many of the critical claims made by politicians or government organizations. Some examples include Apple Inc’s 9to5 Mac media platform, Microsoft’s news engine, and Tesla’s blog page. Many of these sites will flood their articles with extraneous information and advertisements that present their company and products in a positive light with the intention of transforming readers from concerned citizens into curious consumers. Researchers also point to the role of Big Tech’s social media platforms in promoting disinformation that confuses consumers about the risks of the industry. It is this confusion, combined with information overload , that leads to a compassion fatigue that further deters people from learning critical information about their rights, even when an article by an accredited source is published.

Ultimately, the question becomes how to monitor and streamline media coverage of Big Tech so that it presents the information necessary in closing the information between consumer and company, and better represents the global impact of emerging technology by including third-world nations and vulnerable communities into the conversation. Because if not addressed, the global community faces not only the risks of emerging technologies, but damages to human rights caused by the media itself. So let’s start reporting like our rights depend on it.